The fedora and lollipop are there, but USA’s “Kojak” doesn’t much resemble the iconic 1970s skein. Ving Rhames stars, and while there’s nothing race-specific about the lead role, the whole endeavor should make you cringe a bit when you realize that NBC Universal resurrected the famous name from its library just because it could. Rhames plays this version in two ways — and that’s a big problem: He’s either a beefy hothead prone to bending a rule or two or he’s a teddy bear who cries. Either way, he never says, “Who loves ya, baby?”… and I miss that.
Originally planned as a collection of movies before morphing into a series, this rendering of a lonely soul with a little attitude — procedural characteristics that are basic and familiar — could catch on with more undemanding auds. In that sense, it’s an alternative for those tiring of the macho games played in “The Shield” and the same-old stuff from “Law & Order” or “CSI.”
Debut pits Kojak against a Gotham serial killer who preys on prostitutes with children. He takes one of the murders personally after bonding with two precocious tykes left behind when their mother is bound and gagged, having had razor blades stuffed in her throat.
After the sicko’s caught, the investigation shifts as it turns out one of the homicides was actually a copycat crime, one that eventually puts Kojak in a dubious moral position.
Meanwhile, the emotional anxiety of the job is putting a strain on his relationship with District Attorney Carmen Warrick (Roselyn Sanchez), who’s romanced into compromising her own ethics in order to help this particular case, and on his friendship with his no-nonsense boss, Frank McNeil (Chazz Palminteri).
Rhames is obviously the centrifugal force of “Kojak,” but director Michael Watkins and scribe Anthony Piccirillo have surrounded him with solid supporting characters. An attractive cast is highlighted by Sanchez, who completely gets the mental anguish that comes with being a detective’s g.f. while creating plenty of sizzle of her own.
And it’s nice to see Palminteri do things he’s good at — mainly, playing a Manhattan tough guy who wants to be a hard-ass (but usually ends up sympathizing) and understands that Kojak has to do what he has to do.
Like it’s progenitor, the city plays a major part in the show’s credibility, and while street smarts are in abundance, everyone seems hamstrung over the fact that the production is filmed in Toronto. You can just tell this isn’t the Big Apple.
But the most knotty ingredient is the overall tone: Kojak starts off evil — Russian roulette with a mouthy perp — but he gets ultra-soft as the movie progresses, even tearing up at one scene. You don’t really know where you stand with him even after watching the first two hours.